Lunch With Sean Parker
The Napster co-founder arrives late.
Since he disputes his portrayal in the film, I ask him about what drives him and how he defines his job. "Solving specific problems is what drives me. I am not interested in having a career. I never have been," he says. "This in no way resembles a career. I think a career is something your father brings home in a briefcase every night, looking kind of tired."
It is an arresting image and I ask him if he is thinking of his own father, who was until recently chief scientist of the U.S. National Ocean Service. "Yes, I think that's accurate," he says soberly. "He wanted to be entrepreneurial but he had a family and he didn't feel able to take the risk of putting everything aside. He actually told me, 'If you are going to take risks, take them early before you have a family.' "
Parker took those words to heart, building on his early hobby as a hacker in Virginia, to link up with other teenagers who had become fascinated by the potential of the internet. These included Shawn Fanning, the founder of Napster. Parker decided not to apply for college (a decision that "seemed totally insane" to his mother) and to develop Napster instead.
In one long breath, he describes what happened in the following 18 months: "Founded the company, launched the product, moved to California, got on my hands and knees and installed all the servers for six weeks, got introduced to my first business people and hired them and fired them, and was sued by the record labels and suddenly I'm on MTV and now we're sponsoring raves and going to crazy parties, and then bigger and bigger and bigger. And then the company's dead and I'm in a beach house in North Carolina getting the call, 'Sean it doesn't look good. I don't think you'll have a job when you get back.' And then it's over. And one day Fanning and I woke up from this dream. It felt like we'd lived through an entire lifetime of experiences."
We have talked for nearly two hours. I excuse myself for a break and when I return to the table Parker is talking on his BlackBerry. As he ends the call, he looks agitated and upset. Page Six, the gossip column of the tabloid New York Post, has a story that he undertipped a nightclub doorman by giving him only $5. "This is insane," he mutters, "If I did it, it was an accident."
We skip pudding. I have coffee while he takes an English breakfast tea and discusses the meteoric change in his fortunes. "You have got to be willing to be poor [as an entrepreneur]," he says. "There was a time when I was living out of a single suitcase. I had a rule that I wouldn't stay on one person's couch for more than two weeks because I didn't want to become a bother."
So is a billion dollars cool? He ponders the question carefully. "No, it's not," he says. "It's not cool. I think being a wealthy member of the establishment is the antithesis of cool. Being a countercultural revolutionary is cool. So to the extent that you've made a billion dollars, you've probably become uncool." He laughs at his retort to Aaron Sorkin.
It is nearly 3:45 p.m. and his BlackBerry is flashing alarmingly as his assistants guide him towards his next appointment, at Spotify, an online music service in which he has invested. Still muttering about Page Six, he retrieves our coats and carefully tips the attendant. Outside, a driver awaits with a Cadillac Escalade. Parker offers me a ride but I do not want to delay him. He is late.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.
John Gapper is the FT's chief business commentator.
Photograph of Sean Parker by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.